Last night I just about got snarky. A few months ago I posted a grip and grin style fish selfie with a mid range rainbow caught on what proved to be the best day out of 14 or so I spent fishing around the Livingston area in south central Montana. It was one of those fishing trips where on at least one occasion I came to the point of asking myself if I really enjoy fly fishing or if it has become merely a life consuming obsession filled with hours of self doubt, self loathing and confidence crushing refusals but that is also mercifully pocked with occasional bouts of elation. While that mental road is one we all must go down once and a while my frequent paying of that toll left my spiritual tank riding near “E” and the thought of donning waders for another cold, windy and underwhelming day of nymphing did not exactly have me firing out of bed in the morning. So let’s just say the one day that had the pre- spawn rainbows eating heartily left me giddy and ready to prove to the world (and myself) that I do indeed know how to catch a fish, a sentiment that a day before was like the rainbow, up in the air. So there you have it, a fish suspended up in the air looking perplexedly at the camera, and yes, being forced to suck air for a few seconds while my numb fingers groped awkwardly on my phone for the camera app.
Here comes the snarky part, a good friend posted the comment “keep ’em wet” in reaction to my aerial fish picture, which is all well and good and his sentiment is hard to argue with- fish like water and it’s better for all parties involved if that’s where they stay, but it got me ruffled for reasons that seemed to supersede my typical vestigial teen angst. I replied does drawn butter and lemon count as “keeping ’em wet?” But his point is a good one: we all could probably do well to think a little more about our actions more when we’re out on the water.
After the initial visceral rush of undirected “you can’t tell me what to do” irrationality subsided, I had to admit that he’s right, its the same reason we use rubber nets, barbless hooks and lead free split shot, because we care. Can fish handle the air time? Sure, just as we can handle at little underwater time. Can we at times, like saying goodbye to a friend, prolong the moment for too long until both of us are uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. Does the world need another trout-gun pic? Hmmmmm.
The asking of questions often necessitates the researching of facts, which by the time those facts make it to the river are often confuddled and confabulated like the old game “telephone” and are reduced to nothing more than some arcane statistics like the random percentages thrown around as to how much trout feed subsurface in relation to from the surface. We talk about mortality rate percentages of caught and released fish with one of the causes of death after release coming as a result of fisherman trying to hasten evolution by holding the gasping trout out of the water for too long expecting them to miraculously start breathing air. While is it not as taxing to the fish as a prolonged fight especially in warm water, it should be safely assumed by anyone with a middle school level understanding of biology that the timer starts ticking the moment that fish begins its atmospheric adventure. Whatever the statistic I think we all can agree that trout have better places to be than playing superman. On a similar but tangential thought, you think fish are afraid of heights? I mean, there is no height in water only depth and there is no falling down in water as I have proven time and again there sure as hell is on land. Maybe just to be safe we should hold the fish closer to the water so as not to inflict any acrophobic induced psychological damage as well.
A few days ago I saw a picture of a beautiful Atlantic salmon my commenting buddy caught, which to be fair was still in the water when the picture was taken but it got me thinking it seems funny to care so much about the 10 seconds we haul a fish out of the water for a pic but not about the 5 or more minutes we spend pulling the fish around by a sharp piece of steel piercing its head. Maybe instead of saying “keep em wet” we should be saying give that poor fish an aspirin cause that hole in its face has to hurt a whole lot worse than a few breaths of air. It’s interesting how we chose to accept one form of inflicted discomfort/pain as unavoidable or “part of the deal” but then we make a big stink out of what is essentially just an effect of the cause. In the end if we really cared about the welfare of the fish we should probably just stay home, but that isn’t an option now is it?
As a writer always needing a new idea to put to ink, or 1’s and 0’s, I am forced to sometimes plumb depths that I’d rather not on account of what bits of scary matter may come up in the gill net. I got to thinking about the question I posed above, what’s worse for the fish, a piece of impaled facial steel or a bit of air time? As someone who has had a few facial piercings, which now seems comically appropriate as a fisherman, I can tell you with full faith that a sharp metal rod through any part of your mouth will leave you instantly rethinking your life choices, but I am no fish and fish are no man.
This question got me researching the web for answers that, like the soon to be victim in a horror movie who the opens the cellar door and without turning on the light starts to slowly descend one creaky step at a time into their imminent doom had my inner self screaming “STOP, STOP now before its too late.” Like the slasher victim, I kept descending until I waded past the point of no return, past the point of being blissfully ignorant in my conviction that while they are animate beings, fish are without the ability to feel pain as we do. To use a cliche, I was about to open that one lady’s magical box, and once it was opened I would never be able to put back the knowledge that came out. I was prepared for the worst, but what I found was even more surprising.
I will save you the freshman BIO 101 grade research paper here, but after reading a slew of articles from various academic, scientific and a couple obviously end-of-the-spectrum organizations here is my synopsis:
Fish feel pain, but not like we do, we think, probably
*Divergence. A few months ago my old pup Arlo, after 16 ½ years finally gave up his job as protector of me and tormentor of small mammals and passed on. Before the cancer got him I was engulfed in the whole “are you keeping him alive for your sake or his” debate about end of life care. I chose to extend his by what tuned out to be a great couple weeks, but the whole event brought out the conversation with a few friends about the transposition of human emotions onto other animals. For instance, I was accused of prolonging his suffering by not putting him down. I replied that we can’t use human emotions like suffering to understand how other animals are experiencing life because unlike tangible feelings like pain, hunger and fear we have no way of empirically testing and interpreting and therefore understanding what other animals are experiencing. Pain gets a response we can measure, so does hunger but emotions like happiness, joy, and suffering all are combinations of physical responses in tandem with other human emotions and human experiences. So do I think dogs feel happiness? Maybe, but maybe not, I mean I know what appears to be a parallel to what we call happiness in our lives with what I see in dogs, or maybe they are just acting that way because we feed them and keep the dreaded vacuum cleaner locked away. While I know this is a wildly complicated subject, it is important to be able to see that distinction between words like pain and suffering because it may just be the distinction we need to lean on philosophically in order to keep hooking fish knowing the pain it might cause. Divergence over*
Back to my synopsis, fish feel pain, but not like we do. If you take the current research out there, barring any new late breaking study, the common consensus is that fish, like us have nerve endings which transmit sensations to the brain. Where is gets fuzzy is when you start looking at the brain end of the deal, specifically in fish which do not have the same “neuro-physiology” or a neocortex like we do and also lack a certain type of nerve fiber necessary for the transmittal of the sensation of intense pain. So they feel some pain, but not like us, kinda. Studies have shown that fish react to pain stimuli, but does that mean they feel pain? Some people point to the practice of ringing a bull’s nose, which I bet is painful as all get out and is why they follow you around when pulled by the ring. If a trout was in pain, wouldn’t you think it would just go with your pulling instead of performing half gainers and peeling line off your reel? If you need an answer, most people agree they feel some facsimile of pain, but where we leave the fish behind is in our psychological capacity to make any pain way worse by adding psychological trauma from past pain to the present moment. This is getting long winded.
Fish– May feel some type of pain but since they don’t think like us it probably isn’t as bad as it would be if I hooked you in the lip and drug you around town.
Us– Feel pain and our brain box makes it worse thinking about how bad it hurts, how bad it will hurt, how much this pain will affect our life and how much it’ll cost to get fixed.
All of this research and soul searching left me antsy and in need of some space to think, so I grabbed my waders and a rod or two and headed out for some quiet time on the water (irony duly noted). For my part I have always treated the fish I catch with modicum of respect and care, after all, regardless of how they got into their current predicament they are still a living being that deserves to be treated as such. My friend’s comment also got me thinking more creatively about how I capture that moment on film. So instead of the played out grip and grin shot I have been trying to tell a different story with my lens, say maybe by just capturing some fish and some water while the fish is still breathing liquids or by getting a waterproof camera case and taking the picture to the fish instead of the fish to the picture. If you really need that ‘human holding a fish’ pic, be quick, don’t selfie it because it’s always tougher on the fish and the shot is usually horrid. Body mounted cameras are a cool option, so is a tripod or a fishing buddy willing to put down his gear to take a pic for you.
To live is to live with hurt, as the Buddha says “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” While I don’t relish the role as the inflicter of pain, I do relish the trout’s role of inflicter of joy. Someday I will probably be that guy who clips the bend off his flies and just lives for the take without the need for pain, joy and a good long fight. At that point maybe I will no longer need to fish, hell, maybe I’ll just want to sit on the bank and watch the afternoon subvaria hatch. For now I think I need the pain from the fish, I need that reality, that truth that the world hurts and someday it’ll be our turn to get fooled by a well dressed dry fly. Each of us must take the knowledge of our actions and do with it what we feel is right. If you feel the pain fishing causes isn’t worth the joy, then it may be time to put your rod down, or seek medical help, they can probably fix that problem. But for the rest of us we need to balance the books, with the pain in the fish there must come joy in you and if there is joy in you then the world will benefit, except for those days when you don’t catch a damned thing and world around you suffers while the trout swim away pain free.